TREMONT – “I built boats from the time I could walk,” says Robert “Chummy” Rich. “Most of them wouldn’t float. If they did, they’d float upside down.”
When Rich was a young kid, he liked nothing better than to hang out with his grandfather, locally renowned boatbuilder Clifton Rich. He borrowed scraps of lumber from his dad, Robert “Bobby” Rich, also a well-known builder. Sometimes, young Rich got into the good stuff. By the time he was 10 or so, had put together a pretty good-sized craft. In a vintage photo, he and his buddies, Ralph Tate and Morris Thurston from up the road, can be seen clambering into it as they ease it into the water.
“You had to bail quite consistently, but it did float,” he says. “The only means of propulsion was – you’re on the boat, you throw the anchor out as far as you could throw it, you haul yourself along, and then throw it out again.”
Coming from a long line of boatbuilders, ship builders, seafarers, and carpenters, and enjoying tutelage from a network of family members and their skilled employees, Rich had no trouble from then on making his boats float and establishing his own reputation as a builder of fine craft.
On the “back side” of Mount Desert Island, in the adjacent coastal towns of Tremont and Southwest Harbor, the Rich clan “goes all the way back to Noah,” Rich jokes, adding, “We have built just about everything.”
Today, Chummy Rich is the last of the clan in the trade.
Between Clifton, Bobby, and Chummy, the yard has produced at least 367 boats in astonishing variety. In the early 20th century, Clifton’s punts and dories, and his small fishing boats and sailboats, were a mainstay for the local fleet. When Bobby started his shop in 1939, he soon became the go-to builder for all manner of work boats, recreational boats, and specialty craft, his name to become known nationwide and his boats sold from Maine to South America.
Chummy began working in his father’s shop in 1958 and took over operations upon his father’s death, in 1981. He inherited a venerable mantle and made it his own. Backed by 10 generations in the local dynasty, his name is something of an institution around the harbor.
“That’s ‘mental’ institution,” he quips.
A few years ago, Rich thought he’d retire from the craft and concentrate on his boat transportation business.
Instead, a younger wooden boat enthusiast, Richard Helmke, landed on his doorstep. Helmke owned a Bobby Rich boat built in 1959. One day, about ten years ago, he called Chummy Rich for advice on its restoration. The two men hit it off.
Helmke recalls a discussion they had one night at dinner.
“He indicated how he’d love to retire and sell the place, but he’d miss it. And that’s when we came up with an idea together: What if I bought the place, you still keep coming in and do your thing every day and enjoy it as long as you want, and it works out great for both of us?”
The idea took. Early in 2013, Helmke was in the process of finalizing his purchase of the business. He intends to keep the name and focus on wooden boat repair, storage, and restoration. Rich will be involved as much as he wants to be.
Rich laughs. “I enjoy going down there and watching him work.”
When you get to talking about the Rich clan, you have to shift to first names because there are so many of them. Even then, you pretty much have to go with nicknames, because there’s a fair bucketload of Johns, Jonathans, and Samuels through the ages. My favorite nickname – which I learned from Meredith Rich Hutchins, Chummy’s genealogy-researching cousin who lives in nearby Southwest Harbor – is “Talkin’ John,” who lived from 1853 to 1919.
“Why was he called Talkin’ John?” I, apparently brain-dead that moment, ask Hutchins one day, while viewing quite a lot of her research documents.
“I suppose he talked a lot,” she charitably answers. “They had nicknames for the Riches a lot. There was Lyin’ Sam, Sam Peculiar, One-Wing Sam – we presume that came from the Civil War. And my grandfather was very talkative. And my father was very talkative. In fact, I think we all talk, given the opportunity.”
According to Hutchins, who provided most of the family information and lore herein, many of the Rich men were seafarers, as shown in some of the earliest records, even before coming to America.
The first Rich was named John, and he arrived on Mount Desert Island around the time of the American Revolution. The clan branched into several boatbuilding families who lived within miles of each other but who gradually stopped counting how many cousins distant they were from each other. The boatbuilders include Chummy’s contemporaries, brothers James and Merton Rich, who died in recent years; and the brothers Frank, Ulysses “Eulie,” Roy, and Chauncy Rich. There’s also the Rich branch that owns a fish wharf, a straight shot across Bass Harbor.
“Somewhere back along the line, we’re all related,” Rich says. “But you’d have to go back and find it. My mother married a Rich, her sister married a Rich – but two different branches of Riches. So it just kind of got confusing.”
The early Riches were fishermen, not boatbuilders, Hutchins explains. She quotes William Otis Sawtelle – a Rich descendant – who wrote, in Volume IV of the Bangor Historical Magazine, that MDI’s first John Rich “was a Grand Banks fisherman and continued in the business for many years. He used to boast that he had eaten sixteen Christmas dinners on the Banks.”
John, who died in 1811, fathered a large family. Among his children was Captain Elias “Heavenly Crown” Rich, who had 12 children. Captain Elias died in 1867 and, according to the 1938 tome Traditions and Records of Southwest Harbor and Somesville, Mount Desert Island, Maine by Mrs. Seth S. Thornton, a frequently appearing “discoloration of the stone” at his resting place in the Bernard cemetery, “has assumed the outline of a crowned head.”
Chummy and Meredith’s great-grandfather, John Melbourne “Talkin’ John” Rich, went to sea for many years, as did his son, Clifton Melbourne Rich (1881-1970) as a young man. “Talkin’ John,” explains Hutchins, was master of a number of vessels. In 1896, when Clifton was 14, he helped his father build their house by the Creek in Bernard, after their house in Richtown had burned.
Hutchins continues, “Our grandfather, Cliff Rich, once told my brother that ‘as a young man while on a trip in the schooner Idaho, the vessel was tied up to a wharf in Boston where he was caulking the deck. A man came by and watched him work and then said to Cliff, “A man’s a fool to go to sea when he can caulk like that.”
“’And you know, he was right,’ Cliff said, so he came home and began to carpenter and build boats. He didn’t want to go to sea anyway, he said: ‘It was dangerous, the food was bad and it was a hard life.’”
Chummy says it was about 1910 when his grandfather Cliff got his first order to build a boat. Cliff worked in a small shop that is now a portion of Rich’s larger building.
“I don’t think he ever got into anything very big,” Rich says. “Twenty-eight feet, maybe 30 feet was the biggest thing he ever built.”
One reporter called Cliff “the Wizard of Bernard Corner,” a tribute to his “Bass Harbor” lobsterboat designs, considered faster than those of other builders. He was also known for his pleasure boats. One year, another article notes, Cliff, “veteran boatbuilder at Bernard,” had three projects lined up at once – a 14-foot punt, 21-foot motorboat, and a 26-foot fishing boat for a Swan’s Island man.
Cliff, who died in 1970, had three sons – the twins Roger and Ronald, born in 1913, and Robert, born in 1915. They all became boatbuilders. Chummy is Robert’s son.
An ancient newspaper clipping, frayed at the edges, from the late 1920s, commends young Robert, Ronald, and Roger as “Expert Boat Builders.” A photo shows two of the boys, at age 13 and 14, with some of their model sailboats, including a two-masted schooner, a powerboat with the trysail on the stern, and a Marconi-rigged sloop.
“No doubt the children of ancient Egypt passed days in making miniature pyramids. And there is evidence that lads of the Middle Ages played at being armed nights [sic], just as today boys play at being traffic officers and airplane makers,” the story says. “Three brothers who live in Bass Harbor, Me., built toy boats, perhaps because their father, and his father, and his father’s father were ship and boat builders in the same place.”
The author admires the “marvelously correct design and good workmanship” of the kids’ model boats, “because they are very careful reproductions in every detail of the craft they see in their harbor every day.
“The open boats without rigging are copies of the fishing boats in which Maine fishermen go trawling or lobstering or scalloping, sometimes as far as 20 miles in the open sea off their shores. Some of the others are sail yachts, and some are little schooners, models of the coasting freighters that still ply the New England Coast, although in diminishing numbers.
“Sometimes the boys frame and plank one of their larger models, but most of their boats are made from a solid piece of wood, modeled and hollowed out, and decked over afterward. They sometimes power their motorboats with works from an old eight-day clock, gear wheels being removed so that the machinery can expand its eight days’ energy in a few minutes.”
Shortly after Robert – called Bob or Bobby by friends – started building boats, in 1939, World War II came along. It was a time when government contracts for patrol boats, mine sweepers and the like became a major economic engine for the area. The three brothers went to work at the Southwest Boat Corporation, jointly owned at the time by Henry Hinckley and Lennox “Bing” Sargent. Bobby became foreman of construction on Navy vessels, but left a couple of years later to build his own shop on the Bass Harbor shore in Bernard, where he and his wife Mildred also had their home. Roger and Ronald, both of whom lived in Southwest Harbor, went to work with their younger brother.
In 1946, Roger started his own operation as Rich & Grindle Boatbuilders, with his friend Ralph Grindle. Roger was similar to Bobby in temperament. He liked to have a good time and was adept at everything he put his hand to – plumbing, mechanical, electrical. He was a great one at making jigs for design work.
“Jack-of-all-trades. He could do anything as far as boats were concerned,” Rich recalls.
Several years later, Grindle fell ill with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease of the nervous system, and moved on to other endeavors. Roger continued to build boats on his own, including his own boat – the Meredith, named after his daughter – to go lobstering summers.
“But he was one of these gentleman lobster fisherman,” Rich says. “His boat was really a pleasure boat. It was all fixed up down below. He was meticulous as hell. Everything had to be done just right. If you got a scratch on the side of the boat, he came and fixed it.”
Ronald also started his own shop in Southwest Harbor, where he built boats the rest of his life, working by himself. He retired in 1980, after 51 years in the trade.
“He tried to retire a year ago, but the orders kept coming in,” a clipping says.
“He built everything,” Rich says. “He built a lot of lobsterboats and quite a few pleasure boats. He did a good job. He had to have help with the mechanical and the wiring, so I went over there and did a lot of that stuff for him. Especially with the pleasure boats, it was a little more complicated.”
Ronald, who died in 1997, was a loner.
“He didn’t do well in crowds,” Rich says. “He was a good worker. Actually, he worked harder than any two fellas, when he worked with Father. But he couldn’t work shoulder-to-shoulder with anybody. You had to kind of put him on a job by himself. He’d go like hell.”
Rich got along well with his solitary uncle.
“I went over there and I did a lot of the mechanical and some of the electrical stuff on his boats. When you went over there to work for him, he waited on you hand and foot, to the point where he was underfoot. If he’d just gone about and done his thing, left me to myself, I knew where all the tools were, I didn’t really need him. But he thought he had to wait on ya every minute to make sure you didn’t need anything.”
A photo of Chummy’s father, Bobby Rich, shows a pleasant-looking man with a gap-toothed smile and buzz-cut hair. In Bernard, it’s a lovely ramble down to the Bass Harbor shore, where Bobby started with a small building and soon expanded to two main buildings and three marine railways. Bobby’s Bass Harbor Boat Co. soon became a thriving concern. His first two or three projects were small lobsterboats, but he kept getting bigger and better, and soon enough Bobby was building good-sized pleasure boats for an expanding clientele. At the time of his death, in 1981, he had built at least 165 commercial and recreational boats.
With his family home close by the shore, within sight of his father’s shop and the fishermen and yachters who valued his father’s skills, and his grandparents living half-a-mile up the road, Chummy Rich had a natural predilection for hanging out in one shop or the other, throughout his childhood.
He fondly remembers as a kid spending time with his grandfather Cliff, who liked to build dinghies and garden in his later years.
“I spent quite a lot of time down here, in the shop,” Rich says. “Just kind of underfoot, making a nuisance of myself. I spent more time down here than I did at home, because I could get away with more. I spent almost every night and even weekends here.”
Rich remembers when his grandfather used to have a garden out back, where there’s a parking lot now.
“The whole garden wasn’t half as big as this living room here,” he says. “He raised a lot of potatoes. He was quite proud of his potatoes. My father built me a little plywood cart, kind of like a jeep. You had to push it. I’d go down and load that thing up when he was digging potatoes. But then, in that soft dirt, I couldn’t move it, so we had to unload the potatoes.”
Rich had his first professional commission at age 15, when he built a 16-foot inboard powerboat for a local fisherman, Sheldon Smith, during the winter of 1955 to 1956.
“It was built nights and weekends, with considerable amount of help from Father and some of his crew,” he says. “For the time, it was a big, bulky 16 feet. It was difficult to build because it was so full forward. Had to steam every plank or it wouldn’t bend around. But it was a real stable, bulky boat and worked out just great for fishing and towing dories. It was in the fishing business quite a few years.”
When Rich graduated from high school in 1958, he did a summer stint at the nearby yard of the Henry R. Hinckley company, which was making a name for itself in high-end yachts. But his temperament was not quite right for the yard’s “rules and regulations.” The yard was building a 60-foot wooden pleasure boat, and the owner wanted someone to go deckhand, keep the boat clean, and do minor maintenance after it was launched. Rich was promised the job.
“Come close to the time, they’re launching the thing. We had a little meeting, and the captain of the boat said, ‘I’m going to explain your duties to you. You’ll have to wait on tables and do laundry and dishes and serve cocktails aboard the boat.’ Well, that’s not what I signed up for and I’m no good at that kind of thing. That basically ended it.”
He went straight back to his father’s shop, where he worked “elbow to elbow” with Eugene Walls, his father’s valued compatriot and Rich’s main mentor (and who, now in his 80s, still swings by the shop for weekly visits).
“He was the one who showed me all the little tricks,” Rich says. “He was probably as big an influence on me as anybody. I worked right beside him all the time. Father was there and he’d make all the decisions, but Eugene taught me what size drill to use.”
Helmke has taken on the massive job of archiving the Rich heritage, preserving old photos, clippings, and brochures that go back 80 years, trying to discover the fate of each boat produced through three generations. The internet comes in handy for a lot of the research.
The three Rich men kept pretty good lists of the boats they designed and built, but not so good that Helmke doesn’t have to put in a fair amount of work to match boats to dates to owners.
He’s loaded the original materials, and Cliff and Bobby’s handwritten notes, into a cardboard box, and is in the process of backing and laminating each document. This is awesome, because up to now, Rich has been a tad laidback about what others view as part of his family’s treasure trove. I first came across his ancient, overstuffed album – overflowing with black-and-white photos, faded brochures, newspaper clippings crumbled at the edges – when Up Harbor Marine owner Carlton Johnson bought Rich’s shorefront property in 1996. I wanted to get a sense of the family history, and Rich kindly insisted I should take the album home to look over at my leisure. I did, terrified that I might accidentally damage it. The experience taught me that the anxiety wasn’t ever again worth taking someone else’s original documents from their home, no matter how obliviously they insist (although I have).
“Unfortunately, neither my father nor I were very…” Rich begins.
“Organized?” I suggest.
A personable man with a trim appearance, Rich is a tidy dresser, wearing a collared shirt, perhaps a sweater, square-rimmed glasses, his white hair in a brush-cut, a pencil behind his ear. He comes across both as principled and easily amused. Always one to tinker, he likes to spend evenings in his basement workshop, where tools that once belonged to his grandfather hang on the wall, making half-models, decorative wood propellers, or a colorful contraption with many interlocking gears for a schoolteacher friend.
In Rich’s living room, a fire crackles cozily. Several model boats built by his father sit on an overhead beam. Two are hollowed-out pieces of wood; the third is a genuine miniature, with sliding hatches, real planks, everything operational. Bobby built models for all the kids in the family.
There’s a framed photo of Rich’s 42-foot cabin cruiser Omega, a handsome, black-hulled craft that was based on his father’s design and was the last wooden hull to come out of his shop for 25 years.
The 42 started out as a spec boat.
“But somewhere along the line, I got a job that had a paying customer on the end of it. So I had to give up on that, five or six years. When I got going on it again, I decided it would make me a real good pleasure boat. Omega was a pretty nice boat. It was well laid out.”
When Rich sold the boat – “one of those ex-wife things” – he threw together the “waterbago” that became an object of affectionate amusement around the harbor.
“It’s a combination of all the garbage I could find, poured into one boat. It’s got a camper-trailer on the back,” he says. He ruefully adds, “Definitely not a good demonstration of my workmanship.”
At the kitchen counter, Helmke scrolls through old photos he has scanned onto his laptop, filed by decade. He has a pretty good start on the 367 boats that Bobby and Chummy produced since the shop opened in 1939.
“This list is constantly evolving,” says Helmke. “Here’s number 80 to 367. And I’m close to having from 1 to 80 figured. But that’s tough because it keeps changing as I go.”
An old clipping tells of a 30-foot boat under construction by Cliff.
“This boat follows the same design as that recently completed in the Rich shop for Earl Awalt, Frenchboro lobster fisherman,” the clipping says. “Awalt’s boat has a Chrysler Crown straight drive, and is said here to make the run from Long Island to Bass Harbor in less time than any other Frenchboro boat.”
The first officially numbered boat was a 48-footer built for Billy Howell in 1944. But there were others before that. Rich and Helmke ponder: Carl Lawson’s boat, built in 1940, may have been Bobby’s first.
“A lot of boats never got numbered,” says Rich. “Back in 1950s, I remember exactly when, Father built a lot of boats for the Hinckley Company. They were little 18-, 19-foot runabout outboard boats. A whole bunch of them, kind of a production line thing. And some of the tugboats that Father built never got numbered. And a couple or three of the boats I built never got numbered. They were spec boats that just kind of evolved.”
A yacht comes up on the screen. Probably the biggest and best of the boats to come out of his father’s shop, says Rich, it’s the 57-foot motor sailer, Lazy Lady, a John Alden design launched probably in the early 1960s for an Arlington, Massachusetts, family. Its dinghy was named Tired Miss.
The Rich shop used to have quite the launching parties. Some 200 people attended Lazy Lady’s launching. Rich’s mother christened the boat, and his wife served refreshments and coffee. That evening, 25 of the guests attended a dinner party.
“People got dressed up, lot of booze, and a lot of the local fishermen ended up at the launching parties – free booze,” Rich recalls. “We had one fellow we built for. I said, ‘We’re not launching the boat without something to drink.’ So he went over to Gott’s Store and got a little bottle of that ginger ale, set it out and said, ‘There you are, fellas. Help yourself.’”
It seems like there was always something new to learn. On Lazy Lady, teak Formica was the test. The owners wanted it in the cockpit and down below.
“We dolled it all up and put it out in the sun and it just fell off,” Rich recalls. “Because in the hot sun, it got so hot that the glue let go with the sun shining on it. We put Formica down in the cabin and not a problem. But this real dark Formica, outdoors, with the sun beating right on it, we had to use a different kind of glue. We didn’t know that. We had to tear it all off and do it over again.”
Chummy’s mother, Mildred Rich, was a foxy lady, if old photos are any indication. She is mentioned in clippings as hostess of many launch-day festivities. She also had the foresight to cut out the clippings and save them, along with all of the old photos and notes from her father-in-law’s day and from the shops of Bobby’s brothers, Roger and Ronald, in nearby Southwest Harbor.
One of the early launch photos shows Kada II in 1942, on the ways and ready to hit the water. Robert still had his brothers Ronald and Roger on-hand; burgees are strung up on the foredeck. Built for an insurance salesman whose father founded one of the oldest insurance agencies in Maine, the 53-foot yacht was promptly impressed into war service with the Coast Guard Auxiliary. This was probably the last boat the three brothers built before heading to work at the nearby Southwest Boat.
A couple of years later, when Bobby relaunched his business, it thrived. The variety of boats that came out of the shop is phenomenal. There were numerous seiners, gleaming luxury cruisers and motor sailers, lobsterboats, sportfishermen, tenders, towboats, research vessels, utility boats, police boats, and a pulling boat for the Hurricane Island Outward Bound program. Bobby Rich gained national renown for his “baby tugboat” design, which he called Little Toot. He contracted with the Plimoth Plantation living history museum in Massachusetts to build a 17th century replica “shallop” of the style that traveled with the Mayflower.
Bobby Rich’s obituary recognized his prominence: “Across the island, many mourned the loss of boatbuilder and community leader Robert Rich…. He was described by one friend as an exceptionally kind and devoted man, as well as a first-rate craftsman. He will also be missed by a flock of faithful mallard ducks who came to his boat wharf every day to visit him and be fed.”
The oldest Bobby Rich boat still around is probably the 50-foot dragger Bajupa, built in the late 1940s for the Rackliff and Witham Lobster Co. in Rockland. A 2005 article in National Fisherman quotes the modern-day owner as saying the craft is “just perfect for what she does” – hauling lobsters and carrying supplies and construction materials to the offshore islands.
By 1950, launch days were drawing scores of attendees, including other notable boatbuilders. Cyrus Hamlin, a noted naval architect who had a home in Southwest Harbor, wrote that there was “an admiring crowd of between 100 and 200 people,” including Sim Davis, Henry Hinckley, Lennox Sargent, Roger Rich and, of course, Bobby’s father, Clifton Rich, for the launching of the pogy and mackerel seiner Isabelle J. II. The yellowed clipping, dry almost to disintegration, reads, “Billy Tower Jr. of Ogunquit, young owner-skipper of the Isabelle J. II, was quick to give credit for the fine job of building to Bobby Rich….” Taped next to the clipping is a Christmas greeting card to Bobby and Mildred, from Billy and his wife Bunny, with a photo of the Isabelle J. II underway.
From 1950, Bobby had a key friend in George Davis, who had family roots in Maine and who was general manager, and later owner, of Plymouth Marine Railways (now Long Point Marine) on the waterfront in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Davis had his own boat built by the Rich yard, hooked Bobby up to build boats for the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Division, and turned commercial and sport fishermen onto the Rich brand. One newspaper reckoned that the sleek 47-foot offshore lobsterboat built for the Cape Lobster Company of Hyannis, Massachusetts, would “give some competition” to the Soviet fishing fleet that was plying the North Atlantic’s state waters at the time. In Green Harbor, Massachusetts, sales took off.
“One time I was down there, I think it was 13 out of 21 full-time fishermen had boats that we built,” Chummy Rich recalls. “For a little place up here, that’s a pretty good record. Every time we built a new boat for somebody down there, all the other fellows would show up at the launching. Most of them were fishermen. Well, some of them got drunk before they even got there. They knew how to live and enjoy themselves.”
Massachusetts police officers apparently got a kick out of traveling to Maine to visit the yard.
“They were up here all the time, getting something done for them,” says Rich. “Those boats were a good excuse for them to come up and get drunk. And cops do drink. There was one fellow that wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol if he was dying. But the fellow who came with him half the time was so drunk when he got here he couldn’t stand up.”
Plymouth Marine’s Davis fed Bobby’s predilection for unusual projects. In the 1950s, Davis won a contract to build a 33-foot replica of a workboat, called a shallop, that was brought in pieces by the Pilgrims in 1620. The shallop would sit by the side of the full-scale reproduction of the 1620 schooner Mayflower, which was under construction in England. The two boats would be a feature display at the Massachusetts living history museum called Plimouth Plantation, near historic Plymouth Rock.
Davis subcontracted the shallop job to Bobby. In turn, Bobby sent his brother Roger and Roger’s good friend, Francis “Mickey” Fahey, the general manager for Henry R. Hinckley and company, to do the work. A report from the day says the Maine company was selected because no Massachusetts craftsmen were skilled enough in the handling of wood tools to build it.
A clipping quotes Mildred Rich’s description of the project: “When they built it, everything had to be authentic. Everything had to be done with old-fashioned tools, nothing electric. His father and grandfather were boatbuilders and they had those tools and they and Bobby and all knew how to use them.”
A photo from Plymouth’s hometown newspaper shows the keel-laying ceremony for the shallop. A handsome Roger Rich wears a fedora at a jaunty angle and has a movie-star insouciance in his expression. “’The keel is plumb,’ signifies Francis Fahey,” says the copy.
Morning Star “has rather a ‘podauger’ look about her,” Bernard resident Malcolm MacDuffie writes about the 30-foot cabin cruiser that Bobby Rich built in the 1950s. Judging by the few internet references to be found, which lead to the better known “pod auger,” the term conjures “old-fashioned.” And that’s just what MacDuffie wanted. The “Monterey” style yacht, designed by William Garden of Seattle, was his “personality boat,” MacDuffie boasts in an article he wrote for Maine Coast Fishermen. It combined “a couple of good features of the old-time boats” – the lifting qualities of the Friendship sloop, the easy-driving ways of the old peapod stern, and the “four punt-loads of beach rock” that Bob Rich loaded her with for ballast.
The old photo of Morning Star is one stop on Helmke’s scroll through the decades. There are so many boats and so much variety that each one seems like a gem in the treasure trove.
Here’s the John Alden-designed luxury yacht Whitecap, built for Gordon and Robert White of Boston, owners of the vaunted nautical instrument firm of Wilfred O. White and Sons. Unsurprisingly, “the new boat is well equipped with navigation instruments,” a clipping says.
“Not as yachty as Lazy Lady, but still fancy enough to get into Yachting Magazine,” Helmke notes.
He goes on, “It’s quite a nice mix of boats, from working boats that were the pickup trucks of boats that went out and worked all day, to summer residents’ yachts.”
“South America is the furthest away we’ve sent our boats,” says Rich. “The furthest east we’ve sent them is Cranberry Island. You can’t send a boat further east than that.”
Most of the sales were word-of-mouth, summer residents telling friends, that kind of thing, Rich adds.
One such incident was written up in a book published in 1984, Nine Boats and Nine Kids, by Jeanne St. Andre Merkel. Among the powerboats that Merkel and her husband owned over the years was one built by Bobby Rich. On their boating visits to Maine, they had noticed “how smart and responsive” the lobsterboats were, and they began to visit boatbuilders, whose shops, nevertheless, were hard to find.
“They are unwilling to advertise their locations, and their signs are often small, faded, hand-lettered, and overgrown with weeds, or nailed to a tree or fence at a lonely intersection or driveway which always looks too private for a commercial establishment,” Merkel wrote.
The Merkels were looking for a shop in Brooklin, one day, and got lost. A man stopped to help, and advised, “Go see Bobby Rich down on Mount Desert Island…he’s the best boatbuilder and man you could hope to find!” The couple turned tail, headed for Bernard, and discovered “dear Bobby Rich,” who built them the downeast cruiser Lady Jeanne and ended up a close friend.
From 1952, there’s the Santa Maria, now named Framboise and living in Northeast Harbor.
“Everybody says it’s a Bunker and Ellis. It’s a Bobby Rich,” says Helmke. “Built the same time as Adequate” – an early Bunker and Ellis yacht – “very similar – the sheer, cabin proportions, the simplicity, two little portholes. It’s such a beautiful old boat.”
An August 1956 photo shows Bobby Rich building a 32-foot cabin cruiser for Dr. Edward Robinson of the University of Kansas, to be used in Connecticut waters. There’s the 30-foot Sirius, built in 1962 and a beautiful example of Down East lines and workmanship. In 1964, Bobby built a yacht tender for E. Farnham Butler, owner of the Mount Desert Yacht Yard, who named it the C.M. Rich, after Bobby’s father, Clifton.
“Butler received some of his early boatbuilding training under Cliff Rich and the first towboat his yard ever had was built by Cliff, who still builds skiffs in a shop near his house in Bernard,” a clipping says.
There’s a postcard of a handsome yacht, built along lobsterboat lines, zipping through the water with the Bass Harbor Lighthouse in the background. Named Tim Tam after the owner’s Triple Crown racehorse, the design inspired construction of Danielle, a boat that still fishes out of Bass Harbor.
“This is a beautiful running hull,” Helmke says of Danielle. “Two or three years ago, we took the platform out of it, and it looked brand-new inside. One nice thing about a fish boat is that most of them stay in the water most of their lives. They never dry up and shrink, so the hull is in excellent shape.”
Bluejacket, which is still in local waters, is “still as beautiful today as when it was launched,” Helmke says.
There are several shots, in the late 1960s, of the lobsterboat Belinda L. under construction for local fisherman George Lawson, and then being launched, his family in tow.
“We have a shed full of boats right now, doing the same thing for 50 years,” says Helmke. “It’s neat. And you see pictures with a bunch of people on the boat. George Lawson’s boat, his whole family is there. What a joyous occasion. It’s named for his daughter, and that must have been a fun day.”
Little Toot attracted a lot of attention locally and, eventually, nationwide, yielding a slew of media attention that tracked its progress.
Bobby designed the miniature tugboat in 1959, as a spare-time project. Eighteen feet long, with a seven-foot beam and drawing 34 inches, the tug was constructed of native oak with cedar plank decks and a marine plywood deckhouse, and powered by a 32-horsepower Gray Marine motor. Scooter tires served as bumpers. The boat could maneuver like a real tug.
“Complete, even to a black smokestack, Little Toot resembles a Disneyland creation with bright red super structure, green hull and white trim,” a clipping says.
A local youngster, David Lawson, “was a pretty constant ‘workman’ on the boat when hours away from his studies at Tremont Consolidated School permitted.” Young Lawson had the honor of christening the boat and taking it for a shakedown cruise.
Rich was using the boat for fun and for small-boat work, when the distinctive craft attracted the attention of a nearby resident. Garry Moore was a prominent television personality – host of I’ve Got a Secret and To Tell The Truth – who had a summer home in Seal Cove. A well-known yachtsman, Moore “had to have” Little Toot “for the amusement of family and friends.” Before he returned to New York, he made an offer that Rich “couldn’t turn down.”
At the wheel of Little Toot, Moore looks like a giant in a toy. He moved the tug to up-state New York in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the boat sailed to Ohio on the Allegheny and Ohio rivers. One year, Little Toot “helped” the big tugboats moor the Queen Mary II in New York Harbor. Moore had been invited to participate by the tugboat company working the harbor. The company tried unsuccessfully to buy Little Toot.
In the 1980s, Moore retired to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and took Little Toot with him. The boat became a well-known sight there, until 1993, when Moore died and the boat was moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for an overhaul by a new owner.
In 2003, the Island Packet, a news site reporting on the doings of Hilton Head, had a report on “Little Toot’s journey.”
The little tug “brought big smiles to a lot of people on the island,” wrote reporter David Lauderdale.
For the article, islander Neele Barner remembered Moore’s “funny little boat.”
“He’d go out, and we’d hear the toot toot and pretty soon we’d see him,” said Barner. “It was a dear little boat.”
The article quotes Moore’s widow, Betsy Moore: “He just had fun with it. He would go in and out of little places. It was only big enough for two people, but it was adorable.”‘
Bobby Rich ended up building four or five of the distinctive boats. The producers of the television game show The Price Is Right bought one to give away as a prize. A $4,000 bid won the boat.
Rich built the 26-foot tug Benj. F. Jones for an Oyster Bay, New York, man, a wealthy heir in the steel industry who spent part of his fortune on a major collection of steam mechanisms, including a full-size, functioning railroad steam engine. The little tugboat was painted with the authentic colors and detailing from the gay nineties.
An eccentric couple commissioned a tug they called Fran’s Folly.
A 1968 clipping from The Post-Times in Florida says, “Once each year, for a period of three months, Mr. and Mrs. E.L Cummings, Capt. Randall Haskell, two cats, a vacuum cleaner-powered set of bagpipes, a chord organ, a motor cruiser and, of course, an 18-foot tugboat leave the wintry north for the warmth and waterways of the Palm Beaches.”
The Cummings used Fran’s Folly to ply the waters of Long Island Sound in the summer, then cruised south along the Intracoastal Waterway for the winter.
“For six winters, this unlikely combination of person, animals, and items have lived aboard the yacht Sea Song IV at the West Palm Beach Marina,” the article says. “In an adjacent slip, a miniature gray, black and white seagoing tug, trimmed in red, pulls gently at her spring lines.”
Frances Cumming always wanted a tugboat, the article says. Her husband, “with the judicious mixture of diesel and lube oils,” made sure that “real, although unnecessary, smoke puffs from the black and red stack.”
A mock scanner, in reality the windshield wiper mechanism from a car, was mounted atop the pilothouse, as are three canned-air horns.
“One of these blats out a low throaty Tooot!”
The oldest boat built by Clifton Rich, Chummy’s grandfather, that is still in existence is probably a 20-foot dory that served Nan and Art Kellam for nearly four decades, as the couple rowed supplies out to their isolated year-round home on Placentia Island from mainland Bernard, two miles distant.
Every so often, Cliff and his wife visited the Kellams, who bought their 552-acre island in 1949 to live a life of seclusion and self-sufficiency.
According to the 2010 book “We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam,” by Peter P. Blanchard III, the couple met in 1934, a year after graduating from college.
When they married, they moved to California, where Art was a World War II-era aeronautical engineer for the Lockheed Corporation.
But the Kellams had long contemplated a change in lifestyle. They embarked on “an extensive search before they could select, purchase, and finally set foot upon an island home,” Blanchard wrote. They liked Placentia, he wrote, because it was isolated, habitable and affordable; its terrain was varied, there was plenty of woods, a year-round stream traversed the island, and the beaches were accessible by small boat. They built a homestead, which they called Homewood, and lived without running water and electricity.
The name of the flat-bottomed boat, BLB, stands for “Bear loves Beum,” their nicknames for each other.
Wrote Blanchard, “At various times during its thirty-six years of service… the BLB carried out – in addition to its crew – furniture; a cook stove; a shower stall; and an array of material for Homewood’s construction, including windows, lumber, pinewood paneling for the interior, and shingles for the roof.”
Art died in 1985, and Nan in 2002. The couple’s buildings were left behind to rot.
“Down by the shore, the dory lay upended like a small whale, beached on an islet of wildflowers and grass,” Blanchard wrote.
In 1981, four years before Art’s death, the Kellams donated Placentia to the Maine Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, a national conservation organization; they retained a life estate. In recent years, the Tremont Historical Society acquired ownership of the dory from a member of the Kellam family. The society asked Chummy Rich if he would stabilize the boat for display at the society’s Country Store Museum in Bass Harbor.
After a decade upside down in the weeds, the top planks, and the top of the frames, transom and stem, had rotted out. The iron fastenings had disintegrated.
“When we got it here, it was just flopped open,” Helmke said at the time.
Cliff built quite a few dories and punts in his day, and handmade the bronze and copper fittings.
“I think this might have been one of the bigger ones,” Rich said. “A dory at that time would typically have been used for seining herring. But a rowing dory would have been five or six feet shorter than this one.”
“This is from 1946. I’m amazed,” said Helmke. “I cut this back and look at the wood – in great shape. It’s like brand-new cedar, and the same on the oak frames, where the oak wasn’t on the ground. It’s pretty incredible.”
After sawing five inches off the top and judiciously replacing the frames, top planks, and part of the transom and stern, the vintage craft was ready for display.
An old photo in Rich’s album shows the boat from the back. One of the Kellams has written, “This is our happy memory of our very lovely and quiet boat ride – and it couldn’t have been any better. Thanks for so much!”
Helmke loved a boat named Spoiler.
He came to know the boat when he was a 13-year-old kid working at a boatyard in Nyack, New York. Years later, with two young kids of his own, he bought it. At the time, he didn’t know who the builder was. But he loved old wooden boats, and this one certainly had the right feel, a traditional style, shapely and narrow, rugged.
Always one to track a boat’s history, he found the original owner, Dwight Smith, who lived in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Smith worked for Plymouth Marine Railway at one time. The owner of Plymouth Marine, George Davis, was a good friend of Bobby Rich. Davis facilitated the sale of a lot of Rich boats in Massachusetts. Rich built Spoiler for Smith in 1959.
Helmke relates, “The original owner fondly remembers coming up here to check on the boat being built, and Bobby and his family taking him out to an island, and partying out there. He said it was a really good time. I think all the boat owners, the customers, enjoyed that friendship with Bobby and his family, and with Chummy.”
In the late 1960s, when Plymouth Marine went on the market, Smith sold Spoiler to raise capital to buy the yard.
“He said it broke his heart. He loved that boat,” Helmke recalls.
By the early 1970s, Spoiler had made its way to an owner in Nyack, where the Helmkes lived.
For income, at the time, Helmke did a little bit of everything – landscaping, utility work, car sales. But he always worked on boats. He was part of a group of friends who owned wooden boats. They tinkered and cruised around.
“Every year, we would go up to the Rondout Creek” – a tributary of the Hudson – “in Kingston,” Helmke says. “Half a day run in the boat up the river, there was a classic boat meet up there. So that was something to strive for.”
By the time Helmke bought Spoiler, the hull was in pretty good shape, but it needed new decks and other repairs. Helmke had done restorations before, but this was getting in deep. He researched the boat’s provenance.
“I met the original owner and he told me the builder’s son was still around and had a shop,” he recalls. “I called Chummy and asked him a couple of questions. He remembered the boat. He was very helpful and open and willing to help with just a call. “
Before meeting Rich, Helmke did quite a bit of research to hunt down many of Bobby’s boats, visiting the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, where Bobby had donated his records. Rich was apparently pretty impressed by Helmke’s interest. The two men got along. In 2006, Helmke moved the family – and the boat, now named after his wife, Deb – to Bernard. Rich had a new employee. Today, the Helmke boat is a striking addition to the Bass Harbor fleet. Shapely and narrow, it’s painted an unusual green-gray that stands out among the predominant flag-blue and white hulls.
“I had a great time with him,” Helmke says. “And then he brought out this box of old photos, getting all crinkled up and deteriorated. And I said ‘Wow!’ I’ve always loved old stuff, whether it’s cars, boats, motorcycles.”
Wooden boats, and wooden boat owners, says Helmke, become family.
“Take my boat, for example. My family goes out and has fun. You imagine, 30 or 40 years ago, the same thing was happening in that same boat. And the boat’s just chugging along doing what it’s supposed to do, smiles on everybody’s faces.”
Andromeda was the most recent wooden boat to come out of Bass Harbor Boat. It was also the first wooden boat to be built there in 25 years. Completed in 2010, it was based on the design that produced Helmke’s boat and several others that are still in the area.
After his father died, Chummy Rich mainly focused on producing wood finishes for fiberglass boats, on storage and maintenance, and on his boat transportation business.
But he was pulled into building one more wooden boat now that he had Helmke to take the lead on the heavy lifting, a customer who was smitten by the traditional style of Helmke’s boat, and his long-time right-hand man, Bobby Kelley.
The customer, Bill Jenkins, lives not far from the yard, and has known Rich for many years. Jenkins is an inveterate boat owner, but had sold his Flye Point 32 a year previously. It was time to get back into boating. The 28-foot carvel-planked wooden cabin-cruiser, modestly equipped, was rugged and would provide a comfortable ride for an older couple.
“Chummy explained to me the benefits and enjoyment of a wooden hull,” Jenkins said one day at the shop, when the boat was under construction. Jenkins pitched in sometimes, but mostly spent time in the next bay over, building the wooden dory-tender, based on a Clifton Rich design, that would accompany Andromeda.
Local documentary-maker Jeff Dobbs and his crew filmed portions of Andromeda’s construction and conducted pertinent interviews for a legacy film that was sold locally and aired on the public broadcasting network. One of the sequences shows Rich, Helmke, and Kelley on their knees on the floor, lofting the hull. Bobby Rich’s drawings were incomplete, but Chummy’s expertise filled in the gaps.
“This boat is kind of one of my favorites,” Rich says on film. “It goes real easy through the water. It’s an easy-riding boat. It doesn’t thrash and bang. It doesn’t pound. It handles good. It’s good around the dock. For the size of it, it’s an all-around good, comfortable boat.”
The 1950s vintage yielded a graceful tumblehome and a long, narrow hull that was easily propelled with a small engine. The carvel-planked cedar-over-oak, bronze-fastened hull is shapely and rugged.
“Chummy did a lot of the guidance and Chummy was there all the time,” Helmke says. “Bobby Kelley had built a lot of boats with Chummy. With Chum, he’s built so many boats in his life, and seen so many, it’s just…” Helmke snaps his fingers to indicate automatic-pilot – “like that. Where we sort of have to stand back and think about it a little bit, he knows exactly where to go with it. That will be lost with guys like Chum.”
“Boatbuilding is not different from cooking or anything else,” says Rich. “Whether you’re a boatbuilder, house carpenter, or whatever, there’s always a whole bunch of little tricks you can do. They’re not necessarily shortcuts, but they make the whole thing go easier and smoother. I’ve been doing this for 55, 60 years. In that amount of time, you have to learn a lot of these tricks.”
Before there was such a thing as a boatbuilding school, young men would just go to a yard and start at the bottom rung.
“Your first job is probably sweeping floors,” Rich says. “But it’s not really scientific work. You sawed a board off and nailed it up. So if you were interested, it didn’t take a long time before you were, not a great boatbuilder, but an acceptable one. Most of Father’s crew were wintertime fellows. They went fishing in the summer, or house carpentering, or had caretaking jobs.”
Rich never split his time.
“No, all I wanted to do was build boats,” he says.
He’s still partial to training younger employees himself. He tried hiring a few young fellows out of boatbuilding school. A couple of them turned out real well.
“But the majority of them didn’t fit into my place. The teachers down there thought you ought to know more about mechanical drawing and electrical drawing and that kind of stuff. But the fellow couldn’t sharpen a jackknife, couldn’t sharpen a plane. If you can’t mix up a batch of cookies, how are you going to make cookies?”
So how would Rich describe himself as a teacher?
“Probably as close to perfect as you can get,” he laughs.
“A very good teacher,” Helmke chimes in.
“Now, he works for me, so how is he going to say anything different?” Rich laughs again.
As their teacher/student/business owner relationship evolves, the wooden boat conversation will always bring the two men together. In a sense, Helmke’s passion for the subject and its history casts a light on a skill and heritage that comes second-nature to Rich, but which to others seem extraordinary.
For Helmke, the similarities and distinctions in the regional style shared by this shop and other yards on the backside have a certain fascination.
“Whether it’s a boat Raymond Bunker was building, or Chummy’s father was building, or Merton and James Rich were building, they were all very similar boats,” Helmke says. “Mid-ship, Raymond’s had a little quicker turn of the bilge, where Bobby’s was a little rounder. Bobby’s would have a little more rolliness to it. But Bobby’s frames would last longer. Raymond’s would tend to crack and split because of the harder turn. Raymond’s tended to have a little more flat section back aft, which made them a little faster. Other than that, the hulls were almost identical.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that, in a way, Helmke is the more old-fashioned of the two. Although Rich never wanted to work with fiberglass, he isn’t averse to modern things.
“We have a customer now, a Ronald Rich boat, that needs new windows,” Helmke says. “Chum says, ‘We’ll get them black trim.’ And I say, ‘No black trim. We have to get them white. He says, ‘Look at any new boat. The windows are outlined in black.’ I say, ‘But these aren’t new boats. These are old boats.’ He says, ‘Oh, you’re back in the dark ages.’ And I am. I love the old style and the old boats. My theory is that, people have an old wood boat; they want it looking old. If they wanted a modern boat with black-ringed windows, they’d own a new boat. From what I’ve seen, for the most part, the traditional way they built them, back 50, 60, 80 years ago, is still the best way, for a wood boat.”
When it comes to design, Rich’s outlook starts with function.
“There’s no such thing as a good design because it depends on what you’re doing with it,” Rich says. “A long, narrow boat goes easier through the water than a short, fat one. A canoe is long and narrow. A fishing boat is short and stubby. A canoe doesn’t make a good saltwater fishing boat. And a short, stubby boat doesn’t make a good freshwater canoe. It depends on what you’re going to use it for. A lobsterboat has to be one thing, a scallop boat something else. And it depends on what generation you’re in. The latest generation of fiberglass boats has very big, wide boats, with 800-horsepower engines in them. Back when I was building that same type of boat, we didn’t have 800-horsepower engines. We had to make the boat smaller and a different shape so that a 200-horsepower engine would push it. It just evolves.”
Rich has said that one of the advantages of wooden boats is their mutability. The designs can be changed to fit a customer’s needs and desires; they evolve from year to year. The age of fiberglass changed the boatbuilding profession. It also changed relationships, says Rich. Before fiberglass, communities had something of a more neighborly nature.
“One of the things that happened when fiberglass boats came into being, everybody that had a blue tarp to throw over a hull could be a boatbuilder,” Rich says. “You kind of lost the close relationship. Back in wooden boats, you almost had to be a boatbuilder, or have a lot of boatbuilding experience. With fiberglass boats, the hull’s all done, and the cabin is done, and the deck is done. All you had to do was stick an engine in it. Lots of times, that was done. So you don’t have to really be a great boatbuilder. Consequently, a lot of them got finished in backyards by the fishermen or by a neighbor or a friend of his. When we were building wooden boats, basically, you were his man and he was your man. If he wanted repair work done, he came to you.”
Fiberglass boats are great, he allows. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to make the transition.
“If you were born and brought up with wooden boats, unless you were a young fellow, it was hard to make the switch,” he says. “You’ve got to want to do it. Especially to stay at it as long as we Riches have. When I was six years old, I was down on the beach with a board and a nail in it and a string on it, pulling it around and playing boat. I’ve always done it and always liked it and found a way to make – to eke out – a living, and have fun, too.”